The Idiot

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

Isaiah 53:2b

In his book, The Idiot, Fydor Dostoevsky asks a compelling question, “What would it look like for a truly good person to step into our world today?” Or, to put it more in line with his Christian faith, he asks, “What would it look like for Jesus to step into our world today?” It is a compelling question whose answer is equally so.

In the book, the title character, Prince Lev Myshkin, is introduced into late 1800’s Russian society. The Prince is described as an uncomplicated individual, returning home to Russia after an extended stay in a Swiss sanitarium. Throughout the book he demonstrates the virtues of simplicity, generosity, humility, forgiveness, and love – virtues that stand in stark contrast to the vanity, extravagance, deception, and social climbing of the society who receives him. One after another, the Prince finds himself bumping into the full range of the Russian social spectrum from the very wealthy to the ruined and bankrupt, from the ambitious to the vain, from the virtuous to the fallen, from the deeply religious to the deeply antagonistic. Each person finds themselves drawn to the Prince, even coming to love and admire him in their own way. And yet each person ultimately finds themselves rejecting him in some way for being too simple, too naive, too weak, or too child-like. However ideal his virtues may be, they are neither valued nor even understood in our less-than-ideal world. So, he is treated as a simpleton, a fool, or, in the language of the day, an idiot. Perhaps the most poignant example of this rejection is the character Nastassya Filippovna. A fallen and scandalized woman, the Prince offers to make her his bride and to love her in spite of how others might see her. She, perhaps more than anyone else, is drawn to this love and can see the Prince for who he is. And yet, she ultimately rejects him fearing the purity of his love would be too painful, choosing instead to run away with a despicable character who she is certain will eventually be the death of her. In short, she chooses the devil she knows and can understand instead of the Christ-like one she can’t.

So, what would it look like for a truly good person … for Jesus himself … to step into our world? Would we recognize him? Would we be attracted to him and value what he has to offer? Or would we, like the people we meet in Dostoevsky’s novel or in the Gospel story itself, be drawn to him yet ultimately write off or reject him? It is a compelling question. And it is a question we do well to think about for a while before answering.

-Joe Welty

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